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11.07.07

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Photograph by Peter Shea

Local Girl Makes History

In a new book, UCSC history professor Dana Frank finds surprises in the Boardwalk's Cave Train Ride and other local landmarks.

An edited excerpt with introduction by Traci Hukill

If you're Dana Frank, everything means something. Signs, signifiers, signatories, signatures and signees litter her universe, and she can't help commenting on it when she spies one. Right now, for example, she's pointing emphatically at a small brass plaque on the big cracked redwood round at Henry Cowell State Park, the one that shows how impressively old the tree is by means of markers that show rings corresponding to significant dates. The one she's pointing at says:
1513 Balboa "discovers" the Pacific Ocean
"See?" she exults, tapping at the quotation marks. "The beginnings of critical thinking!"

Frank is a professor at UC-Santa Cruz who teaches the history of the labor movement, women's history and other subjects that aren't organized around the worship of rich dead white guys—unlike the poor redwood round, which is organized exactly that way. Almost every little brass plaque screwed into its worn surface announces some triumph by history's winners: Coronation of Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Signing of Magna Carta, Pilgrims arrive at Plymouth Rock, Lincoln's Gettsyburg Address. Sure, there's a mention of the Maya Civilization of Mexico—"They have to have something from the Western Hemisphere," Frank laughs—but mostly this a record of European imperialism, a handy-dandy visual aid written on a victim of said imperialism: a felled old-growth redwood.

The quotation marks, though, introduce a different tone. Those quotation marks say, What about the people who were already living in the Pacific islands when Balboa sailed up in his tights and whatnot? "This is revisionist history," says Frank, her eyes lighting up. This playful enthusiasm animates Frank's new book, Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California's Kitsch Monuments, published last month by City Lights. In its pages Frank, who grew up in Mountain View in the 1960s, visits landmarks she remembers from her childhood: the big alabaster cats off Highway 17 just before Los Gatos, this redwood log, the Cave Train Ride at the Boardwalk, the storied Pulgas Water Temple off Highway 280. In turning her trained historian's eye to these monuments, Frank finds something besides the "proprietary nostalgia" that makes us all na´vely think the markers of our childhoods are uniquely ours. She finds records of American imperialism, racism and unrecognized classism, and the fascinating ways they persist in a culture that denies their existence. She also finds, as evidenced in the following excerpt from the second chapter, an endearing corny streak that many in Santa Cruz will recognize.

'Clan of the Cave Train Ride'
I was initiated into the Clan of the Cave Train Ride on June 20, 1992. It was a hot, sunny Saturday. I had unsuspectingly offered to help escort a group of girls on a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. We bubbled along in a happy pod past the Giant Dipper, the spinning cups, and the Fun House, down toward the far eastern end of the Boardwalk by the river, where the little kid rides cluster on a lower plaza.

I herded the girls onto the ride's little choo-choo train and took a deep breath. And then suddenly I was in the world of the Cave Train Ride.

Thumping music pounded as we entered a tunnel, rounded a curve, and passed through a spinning tube designed to simulate lava. Weird little Dayglo creatures in black light glared out of alcoves. A big tacky Dayglo dinosaur charged at us on a track. Soon we chugged past bizarre humanoids in little groupings. They had leering orange faces and skin, wide mouths, big ears and narrow pointy foreheads, and wore an array of stylish leopard skin togas and matching choker necklaces. In one scene three sinister-looking Cave Men cheated at cards while a Cave Woman looked on. In another a Cave Woman holding a club had just knocked out a man lying in a wheelbarrow, which she was pushing with a sicko grin into a "Wedding Chapel."

In the best scene, which we slowly curved around as the train started back toward the entrance, Cave People cavorted in a bar with hip jazz music on the loudspeakers, while Cave Waitresses popping out of low-cut lime green togas waited on their menfolk. In between, alternating with passages of passive darkness, we got to see bats, a two-dimensional pterodactyl, a Cave Man pushing a broken-down car, a Cave People laundromat, a sleeping Cave Fisherman, and a spectacular Busby Berkeley-style array of three terraced fountains shooting multicolored water up and down, up and down. Just before we chugged out of the tunnel, a big fake explosion went off, as two unwitting Cave Men set off a box of Cave Dynamite.

Then we were outside again, blinking in the sunlight, the girls giggling and laughing and grabbing each others' popcorn. What was THAT? I asked myself, in shock, as I gracefully suggested the next ride, a track with little automobiles that kids got to pretend-drive. I went into parenting mode and concentrated on the kids.

But the Cave Train Ride stuck with me. What was that tacky, bizarre, outdated, and incredibly sexist thing lurking underground beneath the seemingly innocent concrete plaza? What was it doing in Santa Cruz, my town full of feminists, artists, intellectuals and sunlight? It seemed the opposite of everything the town was about, its secret underground nemesis. What, moreover, were the little girls learning from that visit? They didn't seem to be irrevocably warped by the experience; they just seemed to be having fun.I decided to write about the Cave Train Ride. I thought I'd contrast the town and the ride and startle readers with the difference. But the minute I started mentioning the ride to various friends and strangers, I found out I was dead wrong. Far from the opposite of Santa Cruz culture, or even secret, the Cave Train Ride turns out to be deeply beloved with an enormous cult following. Aptos High School students, for example, decorated the entrance to their 2006 Boardwalk-themed graduation party like the entrance to the Cave Train Ride, complete with Cave People clad in leopard skins wielding clubs. Somewhat puzzled, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported in May 2000 that the people of Santa Cruz "have a strange, protective love for the cave train." Why such love? What is it about the Cave Train that inspires such loyalty? And what exactly is going on inside there, anyway? The Cave Train Ride always seemed to be stuck in some bizarre time warp—but what time, exactly, wasn't clear; sort of half paleolithic, half late 1950s.

Answering all that turned out to be a lot harder than I expected, even after I tromped all over the state tracking down its builders, designers, fans, and even found a secret diary kept by its operators.

To really put my finger on the Cave Train's appeal, I'd have to figure out who Cave People were, in the first place; and how they keep popping up in American popular culture. I'd have figure out the genealogy of those bizarre, sexist humanoids under the Boardwalk—and how gender and race politics have been projected onto their relatives for centuries.The catch was, the more I investigated the Cave Train Ride, the more I talked to its managers and fans, the more I took the ride, the more I became a member of its cult.

Clubbishness
I wanted to understand what the scenes inside the cave were all about, and who "cave people" are, anyway. We take for granted that there's such a thing as cave people in the first place, but most of our visions of them turn out to be as much fiction as fact. To unravel the two, I started reading and talking to anthropologists, art historians, and people who study popular culture.The cave people in the tunnel aren't real cave people; we know that. They're some exaggerated creatures, larger than life. As my friend Sami Chen, age 7, pointed out after we took the ride together, "they look like they came from a cartoon." Large, lumpy, in bright colors, they look a lot like Barney, the purple dinosaur so popular in children's TV and videos. Or like the population of Sesame Street, with their wide smiles and lumpy, jolly bodies—some formula designed to charm and disarm kids.The original Cave Train people were modeled on a very specific cartoon, The Flintstones, the first animated show on prime time pitched to adults, running from 1960 to 1966. The Flintstones, in turn, was explicitly modeled on The Honeymooners, a long-running TV situation comedy from the 1950s starring Jackie Gleason, in which two working-class white men complained about their crummy jobs while their wives assiduously henpecked them. Fred and Wilma Flintstone, with their best friends Barney and Betty Rubble, exactly matched the Ralph and Alice Kramden characters from The Honeymooners.

The Flintstones wore togas and interacted with rocks a lot, but they also had cave people versions of modern appliances and vehicles (albeit made with rocks). The humor rested, in part, on the preposterous juxtaposition of the modern things they couldn't possibly have and the primitive times they lived in. The series' opening theme song underscored this in introducing the Flintstones as "a modern stone-age family."The Flintstones, in turn, worked because it drew on images and jokes using cave people that were solidly enmeshed in American popular culture by the 1950s. Vincent Hamlin's cartoon strip "Alley Oop," for example, which began in 1934 and was eventually syndicated into 800 newspapers, featured a cave hero, Alley Oop, with giant chest and shoulders, skinny hips, and odd ankles that widened out into huge feet. He always had a gnarled club slung over his shoulder and wore the animal-skin toga that is de rigueur in cave fashions. Cave people jokes are still a stock element in early 21st century American humor. Think of the cartoon strip B.C., or all the New Yorker and Gary Larson cartoons involving cave people, or the ludicrous scenes at the beginning of Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I.

There's always a cave man with bad hair, leopardskin toga over one shoulder, carrying a club and interacting with a) a wild beast, b) rocks, or c) other cave men. Sometimes he's dragging a cave woman into the cave by her hair (or, in the Mel Brooks movie, a cave man.)

Paleolithic Prejudice
In Ancestral Images: The Iconography of Human Origins, art historian Stephanie Moser has traced the origins of visual images of cave people all the way back to Greco-Roman myths. She found that symbolic pictures of earliest human life were deeply established in Western art "long before prehistory ever became a discipline," and dominated visual representations long after anthropologists developed archeological understandings of prehistoric humans.

Moser found a series of stock scenes codified by the late 19th century: cave men hunt, cave people eat, cave men make tools, cave man starts fire, cave man combats wild beast (usually a cave bear), and cave man makes art. And of course, cave man carries club. "Have we ever found a wooden club, especially a particularly gnarled one that any design-conscious Neanderthal simply must carry as an accessory?" asks anthropologist Clive Gamble in his introduction to Moser's book. "The answer is no."Cave people rose in popularity in the late 19th century, in part to explain the theory of human evolution. But they were also increasingly popular in that period, Moser and others argue, because they heightened the distinction between "modern," "civilized" people, the carriers of "progress" (i.e. Us), from "uncivilized," bestial "savages" (i.e. Them), precisely as Europeans and Americans conquered and colonized non-Europeans all over the world. If European-descent people were civilized, the others weren't, and thus needed imperial tutelage.The backwardness of cave people thus served to highlight smug, late-19th-century notions of Progress. In 1960, when the Flintstones were born, they still served a similar function. The Flintstones' sheer, stupid technological backwardness reinforced viewers' contentedness with mid-20th-century technological advancement. As Tina Stockman has written, "In The Flintstones, the inadequacy of primitive man is highlighted by providing him with items he couldn't possibly have—but a typical WASP family would." The Flintstones were soon paired on prime-time TV with the Jetsons, a sleek family of the future that zipped around in private saucers and pushed a few buttons to produce dinner.

By pairing the Cave Train Ride with the "futuristic" Autorama, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk built the same deliberate contrast. The Santa Cruz Sentinel, in an editorial greeting the new rides, similarly observed that with the Cave Train and the "modernistic Autorama," the Boardwalk combined "the past with the present in an elaborate new setting."In related ways the historic cave people scenes were also about race. The cave people were always brown-skinned, with dark hair, sloping foreheads, wide lips, and bulging eyes: not "Us," the Europeans, but "Them," especially Africans. Cave dioramas appeared at the same time that U.S. and European scientists were constructing evolutionary trees that always coincidentally had northern Europeans at the top, Asians on lower branches, and African peoples down by the trunk.

Cave people's racial politics surfaced most recently in a series of television advertisements (which are being launched as a television sitcom as I write). The ads start out with an easily identified cave man—with wide face, a protruding brow, messy dark hair, and deliberately light skin—who takes offense at an advertisement promising "so easy, a cave man can do it." In a sequence of spots building on each other, the cave man works through his feelings first in a bar, then with his therapist, about being misperceived and discriminated against. The humor rests on the viewer's presumed knowledge that this cave man is, in fact, stupid and inferior; therefore he is wrong to be objecting to stereotypes.

Happy Cheesiness, Proprietary Nostalgia
Almost everyone I talked to turned out to have a beloved breakdown story about the Cave Train Ride, old and new. What is it about the breakdown stories? Why do we love the breakdowns as much as the official ride? I think it's because the breakdown stories replicate the essence of the dark ride experience. And at some level, we like the fact that the ride isn't perfectly constructed and can thus offer another layer of surprise in the dark.

In the case of the Cave Train, the breakdowns add to our delight in the ride's absurd funkiness.That's why it was perfect that the redesigned Cave Train broke down on its maiden voyage with City Councilman Mike Rotkin and other local dignitaries aboard.The Cave Train Ride, in other words, is kind of stupid. That's the key to why we loved the old Cave Train so much. Because it was an old, broken-down thing that didn't work half the time and smelled funny and wasn't the Pirates of the Caribbean by any stretch of the imagination. It was cheap; it was local; it was bad at being a ride. It was "cornier than Iowa," said the Sentinel, "a thrill ride without thrills." All the opinions about the new one revolve around its ability to measure up to that tackiness. The Cave Train Ride, in both renditions, is all about happy cheesiness: our joy in the fact that it doesn't quite measure up, that it's funky and weird, that this is Santa Cruz, and we like it that way. That's why I could learn to love the new one: although it's a bit too coherent and well-designed to be as bizarre as the old one, it's successfully bad at being good, and therefore good.

I learned, in the end, not to take the Cave Train Ride too seriously. I could do my whole academic analysis of cave people and what the ride was tapping into in our collective historical memory, but I'd only get so far. "It doesn't matter what's in there," Boardwalk director of maintenance and facilities Carl Henn told me, bringing me up short. "People just love a dark ride."

Afterwards, when we come out of the tunnel of imaginary cave people, into the "real world," how do we emerge? Twenty-six hundred people took the Cave Train Ride on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2002. Were they irreparably warped by the experience? I thought about those six little girls at Becky's birthday party 10 years before and all the girls I'd taken the ride with since. They were all growing up into great women: strong, opinionated, savvy, self-possessed, with plenty to say about the Cave Train Ride. I'd spent an awful lot of time inside the cave myself, and I was doing okay, too. It was a small, small world in there, full of serious sexism and racism and you name it weird creatures. But it's also a lot of fun. We were all happy members of the cult, and none of us wanted to be deprogrammed.

DANA FRANK discusses and signs her new book, "Local Girl Makes History: Exploring Northern California's Kitsch Monuments" (City Lights, 2007, $16.95), Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.


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